Young people's (in)formation

Young people have access to most digital domains and, as a result, face potential risks. Today we want to ask this: how can technology be accountable for young people’s development?

At a time when the UK Department for Education is reviewing the influence of smartphones on young people’s learning, the European Parliament is exploring extra measures to protect those under sixteen online, and when there is increasing media coverage on cyberbullying, we urgently need to think of our responsibility towards young people’s exposure to the digital world. With an apps industry that is only a few years old, we still do not fully understand how the exploding digital landscape is shaping our society. We do know however that young people, especially those under ten years old, will use digital tools more than any previous generation.

As argued by Matthew Yeomans, consultant on sustainable communications, we could be living a new phase of technological adaptation, and the digital overload experienced by young people could be necessary to prepare for an even more connected society. If so, the challenge is to adequately regulate digital safety but also allow and enable freedom of speech, creativity with digital tools and platform, and access to information.

We think that design research, bringing together people’s everyday experiences and design, could be a good starting point to build responsible and trusted digital services today.

Some organisations are starting to address this directly, providing opportunities for young people to access information in more secure and empowering ways. On a global level, through the Voices of Youth, UNICEF shares resources on safeguarding as well as social media tools to encourage young people to promote online security and digital citizenship among their friends. By supporting dialogue among young online users, UNICEF recognises the important role that young people themselves can play in regulating their peers’ digital access.

In the UK, CBBC, created by BBC, has dedicated a whole section of its website to teach young people how to stay safe online. Focusing on parents and teachers, UK education secretary Nicky Morgan and Bethnal Green academy headteacher Mark Keary have recently launched a new website that provides advice to curb radical influences on young people. 

In France, the P’tit Libé, is a website designed by the French newspaper Libération, aimed at helping to initiate discussions about sensitive events between both adults and young people. After last November's terrorist attacks in Paris, a special edition was even developed with child psychiatrists. 

By promoting conversation, these initiatives depart from the traditional divide between digital and human communication that MIT Professor Sherry Turkle and former Microsoft programmer Kentaro Toyama criticise in our behaviours towards technology. According to them, people don’t learn the critical and social skills necessary to safely deal with the information age they live in. We are more interested in learning the tools than thinking pro-actively of preventing their potential, unintended consequences. To start solving this, Turkle (2015) encourages conversation, which she describes as ‘the antidote to the algorithmic way of looking at life because it teaches you about fluidity, contingency and personality’. Consequently - and as the examples above start to demonstrate - it means that the digital can properly work only if supported by relevant human discussions about its content.

We think that design research, bringing together people’s everyday experiences and design, could be a good starting point to build responsible and trusted digital services today (for instance with the privacy by design approach). The current context presents exciting opportunities for collaboration between design research, children’s rights organisations, and governments, to now start research and construct accountable tools and campaigns showing that, with the right approach in place, the benefits of the digital world overcome the risks.

As we move forward, some questions have yet to be answered: how do we approach this area in more pre-emptive and active ways? Who are the other stakeholders involved in providing safe digital environments for young people? How can everyone work together to create more responsible policy, development and support in this area?

If you’d like to be a part of this conversation, please get in touch with us by email or on Twitter.

Mindset reminders:

  • The impact of the digital overload experienced by young people remains today unclear and worrying.
  • There are innovative tools out there that could provide good (in)formation and effectively promote dialogue for young people to manage responsibly their digital behaviours.
  • Design research could start an active conversation today with different stakeholders, such as young people’s rights organisations or governments, to build responsible and trusted digital services urgently. 

Agathe Faure